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The Gestalt of Characterisation

Short post but, in all humility, I think important.

Listening to Lee Child talking about character creation this morning. He tells us he barely describes Jack Reacher, the subject of his 27 books. True. I’ve read a few. He bangs on a lot about height and build. Reacher the giant. Six foot-six in his stockinged feet. His height and massive build are a continual theme in book and movie. (Reacher twice played by five-foot-seven-and-a-bit Tom Cruise - go figure). There’s a lot of stuff about his indomitable personality and prodigious combat skills, etc. But as for physical description, barely at all. Child explains that this is deliberate. It's so the reader can personalise and therefore more closely identify with Reacher. The ‘men want to be him, women want to be with him’ trope. Reacher is an avatar (my words) through which readers vicariously experience the story. Like those ‘face-in-hole-boards’ at the seaside. The reader momentarily inhabits the physique and nature of a superhero.


The above I interpret and paraphrase from Lee Child. As for the rest, I’m very much out on my own.


I think what is being describing above is the ‘gestalt’ of character creation. The implication of a presence through other means besides direct description. Positive shapes implied by negative shapes. The character of Reacher is like one of those visual puzzles. What do you see? A chalice or two facing profiles? I’ll give you a hard-boiled analogy. The psycho killer’s profile implied by the arterial spray of his victim on the wall. Gestalt is about the convincing implication of a presence by visual cues. But, in reality, there is nothing there. Or is there?


There are seven ways gestalt operates on a visual level.

  1. Common fate

  2. Continuity

  3. Similarity

  4. Closure

  5. Common region

  6. Proximity

  7. Symmetry

There’s a gestalt of psychology, surely it follows there must be a gestalt of literature. Because gestalt operates in flesh and blood situations, too. We clothe those around us in our idealised hopes and unrealistic expectations based on tenuous cues. And we're shocked and disappointed when they don’t prove true to type. We do it, so why not our characters also?


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